Michael Charles has been keeping the blues alive, his way, for many decades now. Michael started playing guitar when his father showed him his first three chords and he was off and running! 30 years ago in 1990, Michael was honored to receive an invitation from Buddy Guy to come from his homeland in Australia and perform with Buddy during one of his legendary run of shows in January at Legends. Since that time Michael has kept the blues alive his special way with numerous releases of his own and always paying homage to the founding fathers of the music. Now a nine time Grammy elected artist, Michael Charles has been featured in numerous television and radio broadcasts and several music magazines, along with gracing countless stages and pages including Chicago Blues Fest, Philadelphia Jazz and Blues Fest, Windy City Live Television, WGN TV, JBTV, The Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun Times, and The College Music Journal. In In 2015 Michael Charles received the extreme honor of an induction into the Blues Hall of Fame. Michael has received endorsements from Vertex and LR Baggs and in Canada from Godin / Seagull Guitars. Michael Charles’ discography is comprised of thirty-eight releases including; a double CD thirty year anthology released in 2014.
Recently, the fantastic documentary titled “All I Really Know From A to Z” was released. It is a testament to how important of an artist Michael Charles is and it is a fantastic watch! If you haven’t seen it, do yourself a favor and check it out here: All I Really Know From A to Z
I recently spoke with Michael about the documentary and his amazing career, and that legendary experience when he was invited to come to Legends over 30 years ago! Thanks for a great interview Michael!
Todd Beebe: Hey Michael, how are you doing?
Michael Charles: I’m doing well! How are you buddy?
TB: Great! It’s great to talk to you today.
MC: Likewise man!
TB: I’d like to ask you about your history with Buddy Guy. It’s been 30 years I guess, since you first crossed paths with Buddy. Let’s talk about that a bit. 30 years! That’s crazy!
MC: It is crazy! I try to just get on with my career, you know, for what it is and all that. But from the day that I came to the United States, going on 30 odd years ago, and just the reason behind why I’m in the United States all falls on Mr. Guy. And I kind of just get on with life and I don’t like living with the past and stuff like that. But it’s just one of those things, you know, people just keep bringing it up, and I guess it’s bigger than I think it is! When things happen to you, well in my case anyways, I just kind of look at the moment like “wow, that’s fantastic and that’s great!” and then I get up in the morning and it’s a new day and I look for new adventures, you know? It stops your progress a bit if you’re living in the past. But there are things in the past that you feel quite proud of and that’s one of them. I feel quite proud that back in the day Marty Salzman was managing Buddy, and just going through Marty and Buddy and all that and coming to The United States for 2 weeks and 30 years later here I am: an American citizen! You just don’t know where life takes you man! (laughs) It’s a hell of a ride, right?!
TB: Oh yeah! That’s great. Well it’s interesting you bring that up, looking back, because I think that’s a great attitude to have: to keep thinking forward and looking at the future and moving ahead! But having said that, let’s talk a little bit about the documentary on your life and career that’s out. “All I Really Know from A to Z” does of course reflect back on your life and your career. How did that initially come together?
MC: You know, back in the ’80’s, before I actually came to the States, when you released a record or a single or even an album without a music video behind it to get it on MTV and all the other sources that would play music videos, you wouldn’t sell any records. That was just part of the process of making music in the ’80’s. So there was a film producer by the name of Salik Silverstein, and he made three of my first music videos. They got played on Australian MTV and there was another big show they’re called Rage and so forth, and it kind of put me on the map in Australia. So these three music videos were done by Salik, and after we’d get done with those things, again, we got back to life and we sort of lost contact. I made some music videos with some others, but Salik and I had a connection, and probably five or six years ago he found me on Facebook. He wrote me and he said “Michael, I was wondering what happened to you, and I put your name in on YouTube and bang, Michael Charles showed up everywhere!” So he contacted me and I basically said to him “geez man, it’s great, what have you been up to?! Why don’t we make another music video and get reconnected? Let’s do something, all these years later. We’re still in the business, we’re still good at what we do! Let’s do it!” And he said “that sounds great! I’ll get back to you in a couple of weeks. Let me think of a concept.” So he did get back to me, but the first thing out of his mouth was “I’m not doing a music video for you.” That’s what he said to me, and I said “uh-oh, did I say something? Did something happen?” And he goes “No, it’s nothing like what you’re thinking! I’ve been going through everything that you’ve gone through and achieved in your career in Australia, and then what you’ve done in the States. I think we should make a documentary!” And it kind of floored me, because the last thing on my mind was making a documentary on me, you know! I’m thinking, “what have I got?” But once we started working on this and putting it together, that’s when it hit me Todd, that man, I have done a lot of stuff and I have achieved a lot in my life. So we made this documentary and we thought it would take us a couple of years to put together. It took us about a good four years I would say, in the middle of touring and recording albums. But it’s finally out and it’s aired all over the U.S. on various different television stations and everything. So it’s really opened up a whole bunch of doors. But just sitting back and watching the documentary, when it was finished, it floored me! I thought “wow!” Because I was watching it, not as it was me, I was watching it like a life of some musician that started as a kid and at the end it kind of hit me like “wow, that was me!” Just one of those weird feelings, you know? I tried to cut that as short as I could Todd, but some stories you just can’t cut them too short! (laughs)
TB: No, that was great! Your father is the first one that taught you your first three chords and that’s how you started playing guitar correct?
MC: Exactly! I was just a little kid. I don’t remember not holding a guitar. Basically, it’s like trying to remember our first steps, you know? That’s how I feel about playing the guitar, because there was always a guitar at home. My dad would play, so I would just pick up this guitar. I distinctly remember him putting my fingers down on the fret board and showing me the G chord. That was the first thing, and it kind of went from there. But he loved to play country music. So a lot of my early playing that I learned were all these little country licks. As I progressed in my playing, I realized that country licks and rock and roll and blues are so related and it’s just the way we express it that makes it sound different! But the licks are basically the same! You play, so you know, the licks are the same, and it’s just the expression you put behind it. Me being raised in Australia, not raised in America, for example, the people that were born in Chicago had the opportunity, growing up with legends like Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, Eddie Clearwater all these guys that I met later in life. I think they had a whole bunch of steps ahead of me. I had to learn from what I was fed listening to the radio, because that’s all I had was the radio back then. There was no social media, there was none of that! So I would just put my little transistor radio on and try to mimic these guys, which back in the day was people like Eric Clapton with Cream, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley. His early stuff was all blues influenced. All these guys. I didn’t really listen to any of the heavy duty blues players till later in my career when I started tracking back who influenced my heroes like Eric Clapton and Carlos Santana. Then I discovered wow, they were influenced by all these American blues guys like Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy and so forth. B.B. King. And that’s when I started realizing “oh wow, that’s what I’m playing!” But I didn’t know I was playing the blues because I was just mimicking what I would hear on the radio. But obviously these guys were all influenced by these great blues guys, so I got influenced by the same guys without even knowing that, if that makes any sense?! (laughs)
TB: Oh yeah, I totally know what you’re saying! What’s interesting too is, I love the diversity of your music. It’s so diverse. Sometimes you’ll do an acoustic ballad and then you’ll go into something with more of a Rock direction. I definitely hear the Blues through all of it, but I want to ask you: going back to that moment when you were asked by Buddy to come to Legends, from right around that time forward, there’s just been a much stronger blues presence in your material as opposed to some of your earlier stuff. Was that something you set out to do, or do you think it just kind of crept into your work more?
MC: Well, I’ll be honest with you. The whole thing is again, going back to what I was listening to on the radio, because that’s all we had was the radio and the odd show you’d watch on television. So basically, I guess I was learning from pop music. That’s what they called it back then was pop music. But when I got the invite to come to the States, when my management said to me “hey, you’ve been invited to go and play at Buddy Guy’s Legends! What do you think about that?” I said “well there’s nothing to think about, let’s get the hell out of here, let’s go!” (laughs) I mean really?! Come on man! But I knew of Buddy Guy through seeing some things on MTV and stuff like that. Basically watching Buddy play with Eric Clapton. Those were the only clips I saw, and I’d say “who is this guy?” You know? Because this guy was just tripping me out! I mean he’s breaking every rule in the book when he plays, you know?! So that’s when I went out and started buying some Buddy Guy records. But I had one foot on the plane already, so I was getting ready to come over and I’m listening to Buddy because I was told that most likely they’ll throw me up on stage and I’ll play with Buddy. So I started listening to some Buddy Guy records! And I’m playing along with them, trying to get familiar with what he would do and what he would expect someone to do behind him. So I’m on the plane and I’ve got these songs just going round and round in my head. And the closer I was getting to the States, the more nervous I was getting, thinking “geez man, I hope I don’t make an idiot of myself!” You know? Because you do get nervous, and I still get nervous to this very day! I think some people just don’t get nervous and some people do, and I’m one of those that worries about everything. I’m kind of a perfectionist, and I just want to get it right. So we get to L.A. and my plane got delayed for like, I believe seven hours! So I’m thinking “oh man, am I going to make it there?” So I finally get to Chicago and they get me to Legends. It was the January gigs, so the place was packed! And they just pulled me by the arm and they introduced me to Buddy and I’m like, all jet-lagged and I’m like “holy moly man! Am I here or am I dreaming or what?!” And before I knew it, Marty Salman said “get up there and play with him man!” So they threw me up on stage and tossed a guitar at me and I had no clue! So basically I just went into automatic and what I was doing at home before coming to the States, when I was putting Buddy’s records on and just playing along. So I did the same thing, I just played along! That was my first experience on stage with Buddy. And I get off stage and that’s when they introduced me to him. So I was actually playing with him before I got to shake his hand! (laughs) I mean, it was nuts! It was nerve-wracking and you know, I get off stage and they introduced me to Buddy. Buddy, as you know, when he’s not on stage, he’s not that guy that’s on stage! He’s very quiet, he’s not outrageous. He gets on stage and he turns into this monster! A great monster at that, but he’s not the same guy! So he just looked at me and said “hi!” and he was very timid, and I’m kind of a shy guy myself so not many words were passed. It was just “hi!” and a handshake! (laughs) But yeah, it did change my playing overnight! I started realizing that I had to learn these three chords and make those three chords as interesting as possible and play a night of blues music and keep the audiences interested. That was one of my biggest challenges. And basically my first six years in the States I did the whole blues circuit and that’s all I played was just straight ahead blues. So I had my first lessons and learning experience of playing the real, from the heart blues, for those first six years. Then after those six years you know, I was just having such a good time and I thought “I better get back to work and start writing some songs and bring out my own albums again!” And that’s when I went into phase two of living in the States, and I’ve stayed in that phase two and I’ve just kept doing it! But that’s sort of a quick, long-short rundown of what it was like leaving Australia and coming to the States. It’s been a hell of a ride Todd!
TB: What was the motivating factor that made you finally move to the States? Was that something you decided to do overnight or was it a decision that took you awhile to make?
MC: Well number one would be the music. It was the market that I felt was lacking for me in Australia. Even though I had a really good career in Australia and I was on the climb. If I’d never left Australia I probably would be a household name! As a kid I was always fascinated with the cowboys. I love westerns! I got so fascinated with the American Civil War. I remember saying to my mother, “I’m going to live in America one day!” I was just this little kid. I remember when I went back, before making the decision of whether I would live in the States or not, I said to my mother, “I think I’m going to try living over there, and I’ll see what it takes to move.” And I remember her looking at me and saying “you were definitely born in the wrong country!” (laughs) She said “as long as I remember, as a kid, when you started watching all those westerns and things, you would express yourself looking at and talking about America all the time!” And I guess it just happened. Maybe somewhere, subconsciously, in my brain somewhere, I made the decision as a kid, I don’t know! But it was definitely not an overnight decision. I think the music brought me here and I was just so in awe with the people that I met. Because I did have the opportunity, through Buddy, to get on stage with guys like Junior Wells and with Eddy Clearwater, and I ended up going on the road with Jimmy Dawkins. And I remember Brian Jones was doing a session in the studio on James Cotton’s album, and so I went into the studio and met James Cotton and all these guys. All I knew of them were album covers man! And I’m thinking “what am I doing here?!” But at the same time, they were teaching me, so it kind of was a magnet that I stuck to and I’m still stuck to it believe it or not! I love living here! I’m proud to be an American citizen, I’m proud to call myself an American now. I just love being here! I have a passion living here, the same way as when I first walked off that plane at O’Hare airport in 1990, when I got invited to play at Legends. So like I said, it’s been a hell of a ride man! You just don’t know where life will take you. It’s been great, and it’s still great!
TB: So how did it feel when you were inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame in 2015? What a great honor!
MC: Yeah! That was so unexpected because I was actually in the studio. I was actually working on the soundtrack for the documentary. And my assistant, Jane came down and said “oh, you’ve just been inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame”, and my jaw dropped! Because that was the last thing on my mind! I said “what?! What are you talking about?” You know? So it’s an honor just to be inducted. But in my case, it took me about a good year later to realize this: I got inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame and everyone in there is somebody from Chicago. Even though I’ve been living in Chicago, but I’m originally from Australia. So I did break the mold there, in a big way I guess. I was actually driving, I was on the road, on my way to Montana. When you’re on the road you’ve got a lot of time to think of things, and this little light went on in my head. I turned around to my guitar tech and I said “do you realize I’m probably the only guy that’s not from Chicago that’s in the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame?” And he just stared at me and shrugged his shoulders. (laughs) It was just one of those things like, it just hit me!
TB: Now, your son plays guitar too right?
MC: Yes! He did come to Chicago when I was doing JBTV, for a couple of his shows. He did those shows with me and he did a couple of gigs with me while he was in the States. He lives in Germany now and he’s an amazing musician and he’s on his own path! It’s always such a great feeling, when your own son or daughter follows in your footsteps. It’s quite an honor!
TB: Oh yeah, that’s great! So, you’re opening for The NuBlu Band on March 20th at Legends (editors note: show postponed until further notice). They recently played in New Zealand and you’d be the perfect guy to ask about this- how music bridges the gaps between nations. I’m sure you’ve seen it a million times, all over the world, how it connects people that don’t even speak the same language, yet they come together musically. So I’m curious on your thoughts about the power of music and how it bridges the gaps between nations.
MC: Well you know, music is a language, in my opinion. Music is a language in itself. So as soon as you walk on a stage, if someone doesn’t speak whatever native tongue you speak, whether it’s Japan or Germany or Italy or it’s a different accent and you might not understand a certain word, as soon as you connect on stage it’s like, I call it the “International Language!” Especially when two guitar players get together! Even a guitar player and a keyboardist or saxophone, doesn’t really matter. As soon as you start feeling those emotions together or click, musically, you’re speaking to each other! All at once you’re smiling at each other and just the body language tells you or the other guy what you want them to do. It’s just a great feeling! And then you walk off stage and you need a translator! (laughs) That’s just the way it is, you know!?
MC: Well, it’s always just soldier on! Right now I’m getting ready to start a whole new album. I’ll be working on some more music videos for the songs that I write for the next album. Every year that passes my tour schedule becomes busier and busier. So I just soldier on! You know to be quite honest, I came to see one of Buddy’s shows this January. Carlos Johnson invited me on the night that he was there. I always try to pick up one of Buddy’s January shows every year, cause it’s such an experience to watch him play, you know?! So I was there this year and it’s such an inspiration that really makes me think that, I just hope and pray that I can be half as good as Buddy, if I have the opportunity to get to his age! I just take everything day by day, but that’s probably the only thing in my life that, every time I see Buddy it actually makes me think way, way ahead in the future. I think “man, I just hope I can be half as good as that when I get to his age!” Because he is just such an inspiration to me and to many others! And I just find him an amazing man. You know, Buddy Guy and Marty Salzman at the time, would be the culprits to bring me out! It’s because of them I’m here! (laughs) But I became really good friends with Buddy’s brother, Phil Guy. Phil and I used to hang out and I would always go to his gigs and play with him. I can’t talk for everybody, but in my case, I hang on to Buddy Guy, because he’s the last man standing right?
TB: I know. It’s kind of sad to think about, but you’re right.
MC: I’ve got a soft spot for Mr. Guy. It’s because of him that I’m actually here and living the dream!
TB: So you’ve got a lot of music and a lot of years left, and we have a lot of things to look forward to. But 3,000 years from now, how does Michael Charles want to be remembered?
MC: That’s a great question Todd! I would like to be remembered by the songs that I’ve written! Because I think my songs really explain who I am, and anyone that really listens to my music I think will know what kind of guy or what kind of musician I am. I think they’ll speak for me more than my guitar playing and more than anything else, I think the songs. We’re all going to pass away and we’re all going to, I hate the word, but we’re all going to die one day. But one of the things that makes me very proud of my life is that my songs will never die. They’ll always be there and hopefully people will re-record them and do their own versions of them and that keeps you alive!
TB: That’s a great answer, and so true! Well thanks so much for talking to me today Michael. This has been great!
MC: I really appreciate it Todd! Thank you!
Check out the great Michael Charles Documentary, All I Really Know from A to Z
…and keep up with all things Michael Charles on his website and Facebook: